The law of unintended consequences undoubtedly will be put on bold display over the course of the coming months, or most certainly over the next few years. The reason has to do with the likely ripple effects of North Korea’s proclaimed nuclear test on 8 October 06. That country’s diminutive leader decided to put his diminutive country into the forefront of global news by demonstrating that his regime is capable of perpetrating greater evil than starving its population to death. The following day was filled with condemnations by the “international community” about the threat to world peace presented by Pyongyang’s actions. In fact, a North Korean nuke does represent a threat, but since expressions of outrage from the UN have about much relevance to Kim Song Il as L. L. Bean camouflage gear at a French fashion show, it is important to view this event in national interest terms of the countries involved. Let us take a look at some of these.
First, reasons for the regime’s actions are not hard to fathom: prestige, international attention, political leverage (read, blackmail) to extract continued foreign aid for regime survival—these head the short list. Second, whose interests are affected? Clearly, those of Japan, which now has difficult decisions to make about going nuclear; South Korea has similar security concerns; Russia’s influence in the region is diminished by the presence of another nuclear power; the United States frets about proliferation in a geographic arc that extends from Japan to Taiwan, across India and Pakistan (already nuclear powers) and ending in Iran. Of course, North Korea’s selling nukes to terrorists is on top of Western countries’ nightmare list. Finally, there is China, the key player without whose support North Korea would likely collapse. That scenario would present the People’s Republic, perhaps South Korea as well, with the prospect of coping with millions of refugees and a very dangerous political vacuum, which, as everyone worth his passport knows, is abhorred in the Hobbesian world of sovereign states.
The chief losers in this situation so far are China and the United States, although for different reasons. For China, inability effectively to influence its closest ally is at least an embarrassment; indeed, if the PRC can’t nudge Kim with positive incentives, then it’s difficult to see how any other country could. Although Bush critics are having a field day bemoaning his supposedly ineffective diplomatic efforts (while ignoring those of the Clinton Administration) an equal, perhaps greater peril lies elsewhere. In fact, most dangerous possible fallout centers on how Iran reacts to any measures taken against the North Korean regime. Failure to impose sanctions against North Korea unquestionably would be a boon to Iran’s own nuclear ambitions. So far, Ahmadinejad’s public relations forays have led him to conclude that the UN is a sumptuous chat room for America-haters, the EU is a windy paper tiger, and the United States is too paralyzed by domestic opposition to the imbroglio in Iraq to contemplate serious action against a nuclear Iran. And this was before October 8. Letting North Korea get away with its “brazen act” (as the Chinese put it), might put another nail into the coffin of the UN’s contemptible record of dealing with rogue regimes.
In fact, it is quite likely that no strong action will be taken, at least by the Chinese, because they are more concerned about a collapsed regime than a nuclear North Korea; after all, the weapons aren’t aimed at them. South Korea is on the business end its neighbor’s military machine and has little interest in taking a strong stand. Russia is a player but its main concerns lie elsewhere, and North Korea has contempt for Japan. That leaves the United States. If the Bush Administration shows any sign of what is interpreted as appeasement by the North Korean dictator, expect the daily prayers in Tehran to be shouted with extra praise for Allah. All of which means that the main winner in this crisis, at least in the short run, will be a country that faces a skeletal force of American troops next door, which will undoubtedly leave in a few years, leaving a weak regime in their wake.
Thus, depending on American policy, the principal loser may be the United States, which will have to face a nuclear Iran within the next five years or so. However, down the road Iran could be even a bigger loser, if the mullahs are too emboldened by the North Korean debacle and play their hand wrong. Ahmadinejad, like Hitler, could make right guesses about challenging his adversaries with impunity, up to the last, provocative decision that brings war. And as the Nazi leader demonstrated over a half century ago, that last guess was fatal. No better lesson about the law of unintended consequences can be imagined.